Modified Senate Tax Proposal Would Repeal ACA Individual Mandate and Certain Employer Meal Deductions, and Establish Five-Year Deferral Election for Stock Options and RSUs of Privately-Held Corporations

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November 16, 2017

On November 14, the Senate Finance Committee released modifications to its tax reform proposal (discussed here).  The Senate modification contains key changes in the following areas:

  • Health Reform – Repeal the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
  • Fringe Benefits – (1) Disallow deductions for meals provided for the employer’s convenience that are not occasional overtime meals, and meals provided at an employer-operated eating facility; and (2) expand the income exclusion for length of service awards for public safety volunteers.
  • Private Retirement Benefits – (1) Strike the proposed elimination of catch-up contributions for high-wage employees; (2) extend the rollover time period of certain outstanding plan loans; (3) allow re-contribution of retirement plan distributions due to incorrect IRS levies; and (4) allow qualified distributions for victims of Mississippi River Delta flooding.
  • NQDC and Executive Compensation – (1) Eliminate the repeal of Code section 409A and the new rules for non-qualified deferred compensation (“NQDC”) included in the original tax reform proposal; (2) allow deferral for up to five years for stocks pursuant to exercise of stock options and settlement of restricted stock units (“RSUs”) issued under broad-based plans of privately-held corporations; and (3) provide transition relief for the expanded application of Code section 162(m).
  • Worker Classification and Information Reporting – (1) Eliminate the proposed worker classification safe harbor that would have applied for all purposes of the Code; and (2) eliminate the proposed changes to the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.
  • Employer Tax Credits – Provide employer tax credits in 2018 and 2019 for wages paid to employees on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

We have summarized the key changes in the Senate modification, which generally would be effective after 2017, except as otherwise noted below.

Health Reform

Elimination of Individual Mandate Penalties.  After multiple attempts to repeal and replace the ACA, including the individual and employer mandates (see discussions here), Senate Republicans are proposing to zero out penalties for failure to comply with the ACA’s individual mandate, effective starting in 2019, as part of the tax reform bill.  Incorporating this repeal into the tax reform proposal carries risks and rewards.  Although the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Tax Committee estimated that the repeal would raise $338 million over the next ten years (reducing the budget impact of the reform proposal), the CBO also estimates that the repeal would increase the number of uninsured people by 4 million in 2019 and 13 million in 2027.  This may complicate efforts to pass the tax reform package given the difficulty Republicans had in maintaining a majority during earlier efforts to repeal the ACA.

Information Reporting Implications.  As we have discussed in a previous post, zeroing out the individual mandate penalty would not directly affect the ACA’s information reporting requirements under Code sections 6055 and 6056.  As with earlier ACA repeal efforts, the Senate modification does not eliminate the requirement for providers of minimum essential coverage to report coverage on Form 1095-B (or Form 1095-C) or offers of minimum essential coverage on Form 1095-C despite eliminating the penalty imposed on individuals for failing to maintain coverage.  These forms would still be necessary for the IRS to administer the premium tax credit, which GOP tax reform bills have thus far left intact.

Fringe Benefits

Disallowance of Deduction for Meals Provided for Employer’s Convenience (that are not Occasional Overtime Meals) and Meals Provided at Employer-Operated Eating Facilities.  Under existing law, taxpayers may generally deduct 50 percent of food and beverage expenses associated with operating their trade or business (e.g., meals consumed by employees on work-related travel and meals provided for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119), and fully deduct expenses for meals provided through an employer-operated eating facility that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Treasury Regulation § 1.132‑7.  The initial Senate proposal would expand this 50-percent limitation to expenses of employer-operated eating facilities as defined under Code section 132(e)(6).  The Senate modification, however, would completely disallow deductions for meals provided for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119 or at an employer-operated eating facility.  Importantly, these changes would not affect the employer’s full deduction (and the employee’s full income exclusion) for occasional overtime meals that constitute de minimis fringe benefits under Treasury Regulation § 1.132‑6(d)(2).  This approach under the Senate modification differs from the House bill, which would not only maintain the full deduction for meals provided at an employer-operated eating facility that is a de minimis fringe benefit, but also remove the 50-percent deduction limitation on meals provided to employees for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119.

Expansion of Exclusion for Length of Service Awards for Public Safety Volunteers.  Under Code section 139B, bona fide volunteers (or their beneficiaries) may exclude “qualified payments,” which include reimbursement of reasonable expenses or other payment, including length of service awards, on account of performing qualified volunteer emergency response services.  The annual exclusion is limited to $30 multiplied by the number of months that the volunteer performs the services during the year.  The Senate modification would increase the exclusion for the aggregate amount of length of service awards to $6,000 in each service year, adjusted for cost of living.  Additionally, length of service awards structured as defined benefit plans would not have to comply with Code section 457, but the annual dollar limit would apply to the actuarial present value of the aggregate amount awards that have accrued under the plan.  This increased exclusion would not apply to other forms of qualified payments, such as reimbursements, which would still be subject to the $30 per service month limitation.

Private Employer Retirement Benefits

Repeal of Proposed Elimination of Catch-up Contributions for High-Wage Employees.  The Senate proposal would have repealed catch-up contributions for employees who receive wages of $500,000 or more for the preceding year.  The Senate modification would eliminate this change.

Extension of Time Period for Rollover of Certain Outstanding Plan Loans.  Under Code section 402(c)(3), a participant whose plan or employment terminates while he or she has an outstanding plan loan balance generally must contribute the loan balance to an individual retirement account (IRA) within 60 days of receiving an offset distribution.  Otherwise, the loan is treated as an impermissible early withdrawal and is subject to the 10‑percent early withdrawal penalty.  Like the House bill, the Senate modification would relax these rules by allowing these employees until the due date for their individual tax return to contribute the outstanding loan balance to an IRA.  The 10‑percent penalty would only apply after that date.

Re‑Contribution of Incorrect IRS Levies.  Under existing law, amounts withdrawn from a qualified retirement plan on account of an IRS levy is includible in income in the same manner as other distributions, but the 10-percent early withdrawal penalty would not apply.  While the IRS may return these amounts pursuant to Code section 6343 if the levy was wrongful or not compliant with IRS administrative procedures, existing law does not allow an individual to re‑contribute these amounts.  The Senate modification would allow an individual to re‑contribute such amounts and any applicable interest (in the case of wrongful levies, but not levies in violation of IRS administrative procedures), without regard to the normally applicable limits on plan contributions and rollovers.  The amounts (and applicable interest) may also be contributed to a different IRA or plan to which a rollover would be permitted.

Qualified Mississippi River Delta Flooding Distribution.  Under the Senate modification, the early withdrawal tax would not apply to a distribution of up to $100,000 to an individual whose place of abode on August 11, 2016, was located in the Mississippi River Delta area, and who suffered economic loss due to the storm and flooding that occurred in the area during August 2016.  The distribution must be made on or after August 11, 2016, and before January 1, 2018, to be exempt from the early withdrawal tax.  Additionally, any distribution required to be included in income as a result of this special distribution rule is included in income ratably over a three-year period, beginning with the year of distribution.  During this three-year period, amounts received may be re‑contributed to the plan and treated as a rollover, thus allowing the individual to file an amended return.  (For more information regarding special tax relief for victims of natural disasters, see our discussions of: (1) leave-based donation programs, leave-sharing programs, and relaxed plan loans and hardship withdrawal rules for victims of Hurricane Harvey and Irma; and (2) qualified disaster relief payments under Code section 139.)

NQDC and Executive Compensation

Repeal of Provisions Changing Taxation of Non-qualified Deferred Compensation.  As we discussed in our prior post, the Senate proposal would have enacted a new Code section 409B and repealed the current section 409A, and significantly restricted the conditions that qualify as a substantial risk of forfeiture.  As a result, NQDC would have become taxable at the time that it was no longer subject to future performance of substantial services.  The Senate modification announced on November 13 would eliminate that change, meaning that current section 409A would continue to apply going forward.

Five-Year Stock Deferral for Stock Options and RSUs Issued under Broad-Based Plans of Privately-Held Corporations.  Currently, under Code section 83, the value of shares covered by options without a readily-ascertainable fair market value is includable in income at the time of exercise.  Additionally, they are exempt from taxation under section 409A because they are generally not considered deferred compensation when the exercise price equals or exceeds the fair market value of the underlying stock at the time of grant.  Like the House bill, the Senate modification would allow “qualified employees” to elect to defer for up to five years federal income taxation related to qualified stock.  “Qualified stock” means the stock of a privately-held corporation received upon exercise of a stock option or settlement of a RSU that was transferred in connection with the performance of services.  To be effective, an inclusion deferral election must be made no later than 30 days after the first time the employee’s rights in the stock are substantially vested or transferrable.  The inclusion deferral election would also be subject to the following rules:

Broad-Based Plans.  The election would only apply to a privately-held corporation that offers a written plan under which, in the calendar year, not less than 80 percent of all employees who provide services to the corporation in the United States are granted stock options or RSUs with the “same rights and privileges” to receive the corporation’s stock.  The determination of rights and privileges would be made under rules similar to existing rules under Code section 423(b)(5) (employee stock purchase plans).  This cross reference implies that the amount of the stock which may be purchased by the employee under the stock option or RSU may bear a uniform relationship to the employee’s total or regular compensation, provided that the number of shares available to each employee is more than a de minimis amount.

Stock Repurchase Limitations and Reporting.  An inclusion deferral election is not available if, in the preceding year, the corporation purchased any of its outstanding stock, unless at least 25 percent of the total dollar amount of the stock purchased is qualified stock subject to the election (“deferral stock”).  Generally, in applying this rule, an individual’s deferral stock to which the proposed election has been in effect for the longest period must be counted first.  A corporation that has deferral stock outstanding in the beginning of any calendar year and that purchases any of its outstanding stock during the year must report on its income tax return for that year the total value of the outstanding stock purchased during that year and other information as the IRS may require.

Deferral Period and Income Inclusion.  A stock to which an inclusion deferral election applies would be includable in income on the earliest of: (i) the first date the stock becomes transferrable; (ii) the date the recipient first becomes an excluded employee (generally, a 1% owner, an officer, or a highly-compensated employee); (iii) the first date any stock of the corporation becomes readily tradeable on an established securities market; (iv) five years after the earlier of the date the recipient’s rights are not transferable or are not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture; or (v) the date on which the employee revokes his or her election (the “deferral period”).  The amount to be included in income following the deferral period, however, would be determined based on the value of the stock upon substantial vesting, regardless of whether the stock value has declined during the deferral period.

Coordination with Statutory Stock Option Rules.  An inclusion deferral election would be available with respect to statutory stock options.  If an election is made, these options would no longer be treated as statutory stock options or subject to Code sections 422 or 423.

Coordination with NQDC Regime and 83(b).  The inclusion deferral election would not apply to income with respect to unvested stock that is includible in income as a result of an election under section 83(b), which permits unvested property to be includable in income in the year of transfer.  The Senate modification also clarifies that, apart from the proposed change, section 83 (including 83(b)) shall not apply to RSUs.

Employee Notice.  A corporation that transfers qualified stock to a qualified employee must provide notice to the employee at the time (or a reasonable period before) the employee’s right to the stock is substantially vested (and income attributable to the stock would first be includible absent an inclusion deferral election).  The notice must certify that the stock is qualified stock and notify the employee that: (1) if eligible, the employee may make an inclusion deferral election; (2) the amount includible in income is determined based on the value of the stock when it substantially vests, and not when the deferral period ends; (3) the taxable amount will be subject to withholding at the end of the deferral period; and (4) the employee has certain responsibilities with respect to required withholding.  The penalty for failing to provide the notice is $100 per failure, capped at $50,000 for all failures during any calendar year.

Form W-2 Withholding and Reporting.  Following the deferral period, the corporation must withhold federal income taxes on the amount required to be included in income at a rate not less than the highest income tax bracket applicable to the individual taxpayer.  The corporation must report on a Form W-2 the amount of income covered by an inclusion deferral election: (1) for the year of deferral; and (2) for the year the income is required to be included in the employee’s income.  In addition, for any calendar year, the corporation must report on Form W-2 the aggregate amount of income covered by inclusion deferral elections, determined as of the close of the calendar year.

Effective Date.  These changes would generally apply to stock attributable to options exercised or RSUs settled after 2017.  Until the IRS issues regulations on the 80-percent and employer notice requirements, a corporation will be treated as complying with these requirements if it complies with a reasonable good faith interpretation of them.  The penalty for failure to provide the employee notice applies after 2017.

Transition Relief for Modified Limitation on Excessive Employee Remuneration.  The Senate proposal would expand the $1 million deduction limitation under Code section 162(m) on compensation a publicly-traded corporation pays to a covered employee, by expanding the definition of a covered employee, eliminating the exceptions for performance-based compensation and commissions, and covering additional types of corporations.  The Senate modification would add a transition rule, such that the proposed changes would not apply to any remuneration under a written binding contract in effect on (and not materially modified after) November 2, 2017, and to which the right of the covered employee was no longer subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture before 2017.

Repeal of Proposed Worker Classification Safe Harbor and Changes to 1099-MISC/1099-K Reporting

The Senate proposal would have added a worker classification safe harbor for all purposes under the Code, to provide more certainty to independent contractors and “gig economy” workers regarding their worker classification.  It also would have changed the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.  The Senate modification would eliminate these changes.

Employer Tax Credits

Employer Tax Credit for Paid FMLA Leave in 2018 and 2019.  To increase access to and promote paid FMLA leave, the Senate modification would allow “eligible employers” to claim a general business credit equal to 12.5 percent of wages paid to a “qualifying employee” while on FMLA leave, plus 0.25 percent of wages (capped at 25 percent) for each percentage point by which the FMLA pay exceeds 50 percent of the employee’s normal pay.  An eligible employer is one that allows all qualifying full-time employees not less than two weeks of annual paid FMLA leave (not counting leave paid by State or local government), and that allows less-than-full-time employees a commensurate amount of leave on a pro rata basis.  A qualifying employee is an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act who has been employed by the employer for at least one year, and whose preceding‑year compensation did not exceed 60 percent of the compensation threshold for highly compensated employees ($120,000 for 2017).  The Senate modification would establish the credit as a pilot program in 2018 and 2019, and instruct the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the credit’s effectiveness for increasing access to and promoting paid FMLA leave.

Impact of Senate Tax Reform Proposal – Changes to Fringe Benefits, Retirement Plans, NQDC and Executive Compensation, Workers Classification, and 1099-MISC/1099-K Reporting

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November 14, 2017

UPDATE 11/16/2017

On November 14, the Senate Finance Committee released modifications to its tax reform proposal.  The Senate modification contains key changes in the following areas (and we have summarized these changes here):

  • Health Reform – Repeal the individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).
  • Fringe Benefits – (1) Disallow deductions for meals provided for the employer’s convenience that are not occasional overtime meals, and meals provided at an employer-operated eating facility; and (2) expand the income exclusion for length of service awards for public safety volunteers.
  • Private Retirement Benefits – (1) Strike the proposed elimination of catch-up contributions for high-wage employees; (2) extend the rollover time period of certain outstanding plan loans; (3) allow re-contribution of retirement plan distributions due to incorrect IRS levies; and (4) allow qualified distributions for victims of Mississippi River Delta flooding.
  • NQDC and Executive Compensation – (1) Eliminate the repeal of Code section 409A and the new rules for non-qualified deferred compensation (“NQDC”) included in the original tax reform proposal; (2) allow deferral for up to five years for stocks pursuant to exercise of stock options and settlement of restricted stock units (“RSUs”) issued under broad-based plans of privately-held corporations; and (3) provide transition relief for the expanded application of Code section 162(m).
  • Worker Classification and Information Reporting – (1) Eliminate the proposed worker classification safe harbor that would have applied for all purposes of the Code; and (2) eliminate the proposed changes to the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.
  • Employer Tax Credits – Provide employer tax credits in 2018 and 2019 for wages paid to employees on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

ORIGINAL POST

Last Thursday, the Senate Finance committee released its tax reform proposal, a day before the House Ways and Means Committee approved the House tax reform bill after adopting two amendments (see unified House bill discussed in our five-part series).  Written in “concept language” as opposed to legislative text, the Senate proposal contains various changes affecting employer‑provided fringe benefits, qualified retirement benefits, nonqualified deferred compensation (“NQDC”) and executive compensation, worker classification, and thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041, 6041A, and 6050W.  Some of these changes are similar to those proposed under the House bill, but there are key divergences.

We have summarized these changes, which generally would be effective after 2017, except as otherwise noted below.

Fringe Benefits

With respect to fringe benefits, the Senate proposal is generally more employee-friendly than the House bill, in that the Senate proposal would not repeal or limit the fringe benefit exclusions for employer-provided lodging, dependent care assistance programs, educational assistance programs and qualified tuition reductions, and adoption assistance programs (see discussion of the House bill’s changes to employer-provided fringe benefits in Part I and entertainment expenses and other fringe benefit deductions in Part II of our series).  But the Senate proposal would more aggressively limit deductions for meal expenses provided at an employer-operated eating facility, as well as make the following changes:

  • Total Disallowance of Deductions for Entertainment Expenses.  Similar to the House bill, the Senate proposal would disallow employer deductions for (1) entertainment, amusement, or recreation (“entertainment expenses”); (2) membership dues for clubs organized for business, pleasure, recreation or other social purposes; and (3) facilities used in connection with any of these items. Thus, the Senate proposal would replace the existing 50-percent limitation for entertainment expenses directly related to the active conduct of the employer’s trade or business with a full disallowance.  Unlike the House bill, however, the Senate bill would not impose a separate deduction limitation on “amenities,” which the House bill defined as a de minimis fringe benefit that is primarily personal in nature and involving property or services that are not directly related to the taxpayer’s business.  The House bill’s amenities provision would seemingly deny deductions for most de minimis fringe benefits unless the expense qualified for one of the exceptions under Code section 274(e)—e.g., expenses for food and beverages (and facilities used in connection therewith) furnished on the business premises of an employer primarily for its employees; reimbursed expenses; expenses treated as compensation to (or included in the gross income of) the recipient; recreational, social, and similar activities primarily for the benefit of employees other than highly compensated employees; items available to the public; entertainment sold to customers.  The Senate proposal would continue to permit deductions for such expenses to the extent currently permitted by law.
  • 50-Percent Deduction Limitation Applied to Eating Facilities. While taxpayers may still generally deduct 50 percent of food and beverage expenses associated with operating their trade or business (g., meals consumed by employees on work-related travel), the Senate proposal would expand this 50-percent limitation to expenses of employer-operated eating facilities as defined under Code section 132(e)(6), expenses which currently are fully deductible provided they satisfy the requirements for de minimis fringe benefits.  This approach differs from the House bill, which would not only maintain the full deduction for meals that are treated as being provided at an employer-operated eating facility that is a de minimis fringe benefit, but also remove the 50-percent deduction limitation on meals provided to employees for the employer’s convenience under Code section 119.
  • Disallowance of Deductions for Qualified Transportation Fringes. Like the House bill, the Senate proposal would disallow the deduction for providing any qualified transportation fringe benefits.  Under Code section 132(f), these fringe benefits permit employees to either pay for an employee’s public transportation, van pool, bicycle, or parking expenses related to commuting on a pre-tax basis or allow employees to elect to receive a portion of their compensation in the form of non-taxable commuting benefits.  The Senate bill would also repeal the exclusion under Code section 132(f) for bicycle commuting expenses, making such benefits taxable to employees.
  • Disallowance of Deductions for Commuting Expenses. Unlike the House bill, the Senate proposal would further disallow deductions for providing transportation (or any payment or reimbursement for related expense) for commuting between an employee’s residence and place of employment, except as necessary to ensure the employee’s safety.  This deduction disallowance would appear to apply even to commuting benefits that are treated as taxable compensation to the employee, but it is difficult to tell for certain given the Committee’s use of conceptual language.  Although the proposal does not change the existing exclusion for occasional overtime taxi fare that constitutes de minimis fringe benefits, it would discourage employers from providing commuting benefits.
  • Elimination of Exclusion for Employer-Paid Moving Expenses. The Senate proposal would repeal the exclusion from income and wages for a qualified moving expense reimbursement, which is an employer-provided benefit capped at the amount deductible by the individual if he or she directly paid or incurred the cost.  The House bill, by contrast, would retain a narrow exclusion for members of U.S. Armed Forces on active duty who move pursuant to military orders (discussed here).

Private Employer Retirement Benefits

In the area of retirement plans sponsored by private employers, the House bill loosened the hardship withdrawal rules, reduced the minimum age for in-service distributions, extended the time period for rollover of certain plan loans, and provided additional nondiscrimination testing options for closed defined benefit plans (see Part III).  By contrast, the Senate proposal does not contain any of these changes, but would make the following change:

  • Elimination of Catch-up Contributions for High-Wage Employees. Under existing law, contributions to account-based qualified retirement plans—including defined contribution plans, 403(b) plans, and 457(b) plans—are subject to an annual limit of the lesser of a specific dollar amount and the employee’s compensation.  For employees age 50 or older, the specific dollar amount is increased (generally $6,000 for 2017), allowing the employee to make “catch-up” contributions for the year.  The Senate proposal would eliminate catch-up contributions for employees who receive wages of $500,000 or more for the preceding year.

NQDC and Executive Compensation

Regarding NQDC and executive compensation, the Senate proposal is similar to the House bill insofar as it would expand the deduction limitation on excessive employee remuneration pursuant to Code section 162(m), and create an excise tax on excess tax-exempt organization executive compensation (see Part IV).  But the Senate proposal would adopt a new regime that subjects NQDC to taxation upon vesting, a regime that was included in the originally introduced House bill but was removed by the second amendment adopted by the Ways and Means Committee in favor of retaining the existing regime under Code section 409A (discussed here).

  • Non-qualified Deferred Compensation. Currently, NQDC that complies with Code section 409A is not included in an employee’s income until the year received, and the employer’s deduction is postponed until that date. Like the initial House bill (prior to the second amendment), the Senate proposal would impose a new regime with respect to NQDC for services performed after 2017.  Under the new regime, NQDC would become taxable upon becoming no longer subject to a “substantial risk of forfeiture,” a term narrowly defined as including only the future performance of substantial services.  For these purposes, NQDC would include stock options and stock appreciation rights, even if not yet exercised.  Amounts deferred for services performed before 2018 would remain subject to the current regime and section 409A until the later of 2025 or the taxable year in which the substantial risk of forfeiture lapses, at which point all pre-2018 deferrals would be includible in income.  The Senate proposal would direct the IRS to establish transition rules allowing early payment without violating section 409A.  Finally, the Senate proposal would also eliminate Code sections 457A and 457(f), since all post-2017 deferrals would be governed by section 409B.
  • Modification of Limitation on Excessive Employee Remuneration.  Code section 162(m) currently limits a publicly-traded company’s deduction for compensation paid to a “covered employee” to $1 million with exceptions for performance-based compensation and commissions.  Like the House bill, the Senate proposal would eliminate the exceptions for performance-based compensation and commissions paid after 2017, as well as modify the definition of a “covered employee.” Under the proposal, a covered employee would include any individual who is the principal executive officer or principal financial officer at any time during the tax year and the three highest paid officers for the tax year (as disclosed to shareholders).  Further, if an individual is a covered employee after 2016, the individual would retain the covered‑employee status for all future years.  Finally, the Senate proposal would also expand section 162(m) to apply to corporations beyond those with publicly traded securities.  The House bill would extend section 162(m) to any corporation that is required to file reports under section 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.  In contrast, the Senate proposal would extend section 162(m) to all domestic publicly‑traded corporations and all foreign companies publicly traded through American Depository Receipts, and contemplates covering “certain additional corporations that are not publicly traded, such as large private C or S corporations.”
  • Excise Tax on Excess Tax-Exempt Organization Executive Compensation. Like the House bill, the Senate proposal would impose a 20‑percent excise tax on the employer with respect to compensation paid post‑2017 by a tax-exempt organization (or a related entity) to a covered employee: (1) to the extent the compensation exceeds $1 million for the tax year; or (2) if the compensation constitutes an “excess parachute payment” (based on a measure of separation pay).  For these purposes, a “covered employee” means an employee who is among the tax-exempt organization’s five highest paid employees, or who was a covered employee for a preceding tax year beginning after 2016.

Worker Classification Safe Harbor

In a significant departure from the House bill and existing law, the Senate proposal wades bravely into worker classification disputes by creating a worker classification safe harbor.  This proposed change reflects legislation introduced in July by Senator John Thune (R‑SD) to provide more certainty to independent contractors and “gig economy” workers regarding their worker classification.  If the safe harbor requirements are met, a service provider would be treated as an independent contractor and the service recipient as a non-employer customer for all purposes under the Code.  If the safe harbor requirements are not met, workers classification would still be governed by the applicable existing common law or statutory rules.   The proposal instructs Treasury to issue regulations necessary for implementing the new safe harbor.

Safe Harbor Requirements.  The safe harbor imposes three groups of objective criteria to ensure the independence of the service provider from the service recipient:

  1. Parties’ Relationship – The service provider generally must incur his or her own business expenses, agree to specific tasks or projects, and not be tied to a single service recipient. The service provider may not own any interest—other than publicly traded stock—in the service recipient. In addition, the service provider cannot have provided substantially the same services to the service recipient as an employee during the one-year period ending on the date of the commencement of services under the contract.  (Accordingly, the safe harbor may be unavailable for former executives who transition to consultant status as part of a phased retirement plan.)  The service provider also may not be compensated primarily on the basis of hours worked (and in the case of an independent sales agent, must be compensated primarily on a commission basis).
  2. Location and Means – The service provider must provide his own tools and supplies, have his or her own place of business and not work primarily at the service provider’s location, or the service provider must provide a fair market rent for the use of the service recipient’s place of business.
  3. Written Contract – The parties must have a signed written contract stating the independent-contractor relationship, acknowledging that the service provider is responsible for the payment of his or her own taxes (including self-employment taxes) and that the service recipient (or the payor) has certain reporting and withholding obligations (discussed below). Additionally, the term of the contract must not exceed two years, though it may be renewed for successive two-year periods by a signed written agreement.

Reporting and Withholding.  As under current law, amounts paid by a service recipient to the service provider under the safe harbor would be reported to the IRS under Code sections 6041(a) or 6041A(a) (or section 6050W, if paid via a payment card or third-party network transaction), subject to the increased reporting thresholds described below.  However, under current law, amounts paid to independent contractors are not typically subject to federal income tax withholding unless backup withholding is required (for example, because the contractor did not provide a TIN before payment).  The Senate proposal would create a new withholding obligation that requires the service recipient or payor to withhold 5 percent of the first $20,000 in compensation paid pursuant to contract.   It is unclear whether the withholding requirement would apply over the life of the contract or to the first $20,000 paid annually under the contract.

Reasonable Cause Relief.  The Senate proposal also addresses cases where service providers and service recipients (or payors) mistakenly believe that they have satisfied the safe harbor requirements.  In these cases, as long as the mistake was due to reasonable cause and not willful neglect, the IRS would be permitted to reclassify the relationship as an employee-employer relationship—but only prospectively.

Effective Date.  The safe harbor would be available for services performed—and compensation for these services paid—after 2017.  Service recipients, payors, and required written contracts would not be treated as failing to meet the safe harbor requirements with respect to compensation paid to a service provider within 180 days after the Senate proposal’s enactment.

Information Reporting Thresholds Under Section 6041, 6041A, and 6050W 

The Senate proposal would change the reporting thresholds for filing Forms 1099-MISC and Forms 1099-K under Code sections 6041(a), 6041A(a), and 6050W.  The reporting threshold for Forms 1099-MISC would be increased from $600 to $1,000 with respect to payments reportable under sections 6041(a) and 6041A(a).  These changes would affect, for instances, reporting of non-employee compensation on Forms 1099-MISC.

In contrast, the threshold under section 6050W for reporting third-party network transactions by third-party settlement organizations (“TPSOs”) would be decreased to $1,000 from the current “de minimis” threshold of $20,000 in aggregate transactions and more than 200 transactions.  Certain TPSOs that qualify as “marketplace platforms” may instead elect to report once the transactions with a participating payee either exceed $5,000 or 50 transactions provided that substantially all of the participating payees for whom it settles transactions are engaged in the sale of goods.  TPSOs that do not qualify as “marketplace platforms” may apply the new de minimis threshold with respect to participating payees that are primarily engaged in the sale of goods.  These changes would be effective for payments made after December 31, 2018.

IRS Approves First Group of Certified PEOs under Voluntary Certification Program

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June 5, 2017

Last week, the IRS announced that it issued notices of certification to 84 organizations that applied for voluntary certification as a certified professional employer organization (CPEO), nearly a year after the IRS finished implementing this program (see prior coverage).  The IRS will publish the CPEO’s name, address, and effective date of certification, once it has received the surety bond.  Applicants that have yet to receive a notice of certification will receive a decision from the IRS in the coming weeks and months.

Congress enacted Code sections 3511 and 7705 in late 2014 to establish a voluntary certification program for professional employer organizations (PEOs), which generally provide employers (customers) with payroll and employment services.  Unlike a PEO, a CPEO is treated as the employer of any individual performing services for a customer with respect to wages and other compensation paid to the individual by the CPEO.  Thus, a CPEO is solely responsible for its customers’ payroll tax—i.e., FICA, FUTA, and RRTA taxes, and Federal income tax withholding—liabilities, and is a “successor employer” who may tack onto the wages it pays to the employees to those already paid by the customers earlier in the year.  The customers remain eligible for certain wage-related credits as if they were still the common law employers of the employees.  To become and remain certified, CPEOs must meet certain tax compliance, background, experience, business location, financial reporting, bonding, and other requirements.

The impact of the CPEO program outside the payroll-tax world has been limited thus far.  For instance, certification does not provide greater flexibility for PEO sponsorship of qualified employee benefit plans.  In the employer-provided health insurance context, the certification program leaves unresolved issues for how PEOs and their customers comply with the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate (see prior coverage).  While the ACA’s employer mandate may become effectively repealed should the Senate pass the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) after the House of Representatives did so last month (see prior coverage here and here), the AHCA would impose its own information reporting requirements on employers with respect to offers of healthcare coverage or lack of eligible healthcare coverage for their employees.  It remains to be seen if the AHCA becomes law, what information reporting requirements will remain, and how PEOs and CPEOs can alleviate these obligations for their customers.

Recent FAA Serves as Warning to Employers Using PEOs

A recent Internal Revenue Service Office of Chief Counsel field attorney advice memorandum (FAA 20171201F) sounds a cautionary note for employers making use of a professional employer organization (PEO).  The FAA holds a common law employer ultimately liable for employment taxes owed for workers it leased from the PEO.  Under the terms of the employer’s agreement with the PEO, the PEO was required to deposit employee withholdings with the IRS and pay the employer share of payroll taxes to the IRS.  Alas, that was not what happened.

The taxpayer did not dispute that it had the right to direct and control all aspects of the employment relationship and was thus was the common law employer with respect to the employees, but asserted that it was not liable for the unpaid employment taxes. Under the terms of the contracts between the taxpayer and the PEO, the taxpayer would pay an amount equal to the wages and salaries of the leased employees to the PEO prior to the payroll date, and the PEO would then pay all required employment taxes and file all employment tax returns (Forms 940 and 941) and information returns (Forms W-2) with respect to the employees.

After the PEO failed to pay and deposit the required taxes, the Examination Division of the IRS found the taxpayer liable for the employment tax of those workers, plus interest. The taxpayer appealed, making several arguments against its liability: (i) the PEO was liable for paying over the employment taxes under a state statute; (ii) the PEO was the statutory employer, making it liable for the employment taxes; and (iii) the workers were not employees of the taxpayer under Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978.

The Office of Chief Counsel first explained that the state law cited by the taxpayer was not relevant because it was superseded by the Internal Revenue Code. The FAA rejects the taxpayer’s second argument because the PEO lacked control over the payment of wages, and thus it was not a statutory employer. The PEO lacked the requisite control because the taxpayer was obligated to make payment sufficient to cover the employees’ pay before the PEO paid the workers.  Finally, the Office of Chief Counsel denied the taxpayer relief under Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978 because that provision only applies to questions involving employment status or worker classification, neither of which was at issue.  Although the FAA makes clear that the common law employer will be on-the-hook for the unpaid employment taxes, the FAA did indicate that it would be open to allowing an interest-free adjustment because the taxpayer’s reliance on the PEO to fulfill its employment tax obligations constituted an “error” under the interest-free adjustment rules.

The FAA serves as a reminder that the common law employer cannot easily offload its liability for employment taxes by using a contract. Indeed, it remains liable for such taxes and related penalties in the event that the party it has relied on to deposit them fails to do so timely.  Employers who choose to make use of a PEO should carefully monitor the PEO’s compliance with the payroll tax rules to ensure that it does not end up in this taxpayer’s position.  Alternatively, employers should consider whether to use a certified PEO under the new regime established by Congress (earlier coverage  available here and here).  When using a certified PEO, the common law employer can successfully shift its liability to the PEO and is not liable if the PEO fails to comply with the payroll tax requirements of the Code.

IRS Implements New Voluntary Certification Program for PEOs

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August 15, 2016

Through a flurry of guidance this summer, the IRS has finally implemented the long-anticipated voluntary certification program for professional employer organizations (PEOs).  In 2014, Congress enacted Code Sections 3511 and 7705, which brought about a sea-change in the payroll tax world by creating a new statutory employer: An IRS‑certified PEO (CPEO).  This change is significant because a common law employer (customer) who is otherwise liable for payroll taxes on wages that its PEO pays its employees may shift this payroll tax liability to a CPEO.  In May 2016, the IRS released temporary and proposed Treasury Regulations and Revenue Procedure 2016-33, providing tax and CPEO-certification rules under Sections 3511 and 7705.  After launching the online CPEO application in early July, the IRS proposed to create a new CPEO records system and last week, loosened certain certification rules by issuing interim guidance (Notice 2016-49), on which taxpayers may rely pending final regulations.  Importantly, Notice 2016-49 extended the application deadline from August 31, 2016, to September 30, 2016, for PEOs seeking to have the earliest possible effective certification date of January 1, 2017.

Although the CPEO program is welcomed by PEOs and their customers, applicants and CPEOs must carefully comply with numerous certification rules established under the recent IRS guidance.  Moreover, customers should be aware of limitations on their ability to shift payroll tax liabilities to their CPEOs.  Further, CPEOs and their customers should keep in mind that the CPEO program primarily assists payroll tax administration, and leaves difficult questions regarding CPEO sponsorship of qualified employee benefit plans and compliance with the Affordable Care Act (discussed in a separate blog post).

Background

PEOs provide customer-employers with payroll and employment services.  Before Congress enacted Sections 3511 and 7705 in late 2014, however, customers had remained liable for payroll taxes on wages paid to their employees.  Because there was no rule allowing the tacking of wages, PEOs would have to restart the applicable wage base limitations (e.g., FICA and FUTA limitations) upon moving the customers’ employees to the PEOs’ payrolls.  Under Section 3511, a CPEO is solely responsible for its customers’ payroll tax—i.e., FICA, FUTA, and RRTA taxes, and Federal income tax withholding—liabilities, and is a “successor employer” who may tack onto the wages it pays to the employees to those already paid by the customers earlier in the year.  The customers, on the other hand, remain eligible for certain wage-related credits as if they were still the common law employers of the employees.  Section 7705 called for the IRS to establish certification requirements.  It also provided a critical enforcement tool:  The IRS will publish every quarter a list of all CPEOs.

On May 5, 2016, the IRS released temporary Treasury regulations establishing certification rules under Section 7705 (temporary regulations).  These temporary regulations became effective on July 1, 2016 and will remain effective for three years thereafter.  Simultaneously, the IRS released proposed Treasury regulations under Section 3511 (proposed regulations) that establish rules on the payroll tax liabilities of CPEOs and their customers.  These rules are likely in proposed form because the IRS intends to revisit numerous issues, such as the treatment of specified tax credits.  Shortly after releasing these regulations, the IRS published Revenue Procedure 2016-33, which provides additional certification and application rules.  Although these rules do not affect an existing PEO’s established practices, a PEO must satisfy the requirements to become certified and thereby attract customers wishing to shift their payroll tax liabilities.

New Certification Requirements

The new IRS guidance establishes a robust set of certification requirements—e.g., proof of suitability, annual financial reporting and positive working capital, bonding requirements, etc.—aimed at ensuring the IRS’s collection of payroll taxes from CPEOs.

Suitability.  The temporary regulations add “suitability” requirements designed to ensure that the PEO has the capability, experience, and integrity to properly withhold and remit payroll taxes.  Showing that it has mulled over the PEO industry and its potential tax pitfalls, the IRS decided to apply many of these suitability requirements not only to the PEOs themselves, but also to certain “responsible individuals,” “related entities,” and “precursor entities” of the PEO.  Thus, for example, the IRS will not certify a PEO solely because its responsible individuals (e.g., certain owners, the CEO, or CFO) have failed to pay applicable Federal or state income taxes or have been professionally sanctioned for misconducts.  Nor can a PEO that is otherwise unsuitable for certification cleanse the taint of prior tax wrongdoings by transferring its assets to a new PEO that applies for certification.

Positive Working Capital & Transition Relief.  The temporary regulations add a positive-working capital rule—tweaked by Notice 2016-49—to ensure that the PEO is financially capable of fulfilling its tax obligations.  Under the temporary regulations, applicants and CPEOs must file annual audited financial statements accompanied by an independent CPA’s opinion that the financial statements (1) are fairly presented under GAAP, (2) reflect positive working capital, and (3) show that the PEO uses an accrual method of accounting.  Addressing comments that CPAs may be professionally prevented from including the last two items in a CPA opinion, Notice 2016-49 provides that, in lieu of doing so, a PEO must include in its annual filing a Note to the Financial Statements stating that the financial statements reflect positive working capital and providing detailed calculations.  Further, Notice 2016-49 provides transition relief for applicants required to submit a copy of its annual audited financial statements and CPA opinion for a fiscal year ending before September 30, 2016.

To allow reasonable fluctuation in working capital, an exception to the positive-working capital rule is available if: (1) the working capital of two consecutive fiscal quarters that year were positive; (2) the PEO explains the reason for the negative working capital; and (3) the negative working capital does not present a material risk to the IRS’s collection of payroll taxes.  The third element hinges on whether the PEO has identified facts and circumstances that will result in positive working capital in the near future.  A similar positive working-capital rule and a similar exception apply to quarterly financial statements.

Bond and Surety.  Under Section 7705(c)(2), an applicant or CPEO must post a bond (ranging from $50,000 to $1 million) with respect to its employment tax liabilities.  The temporary regulations clarified that the bond cannot be substituted with collateral, and that the bond must be issued by a qualified surety, i.e., one that holds a certificate of authority from the IRS.  Accordingly, a CPEO application must include a signed surety letter confirming that the surety agrees to issue a bond pursuant to terms set forth in Form 14751 and in the required amount to the applicant, if and when the applicant is certified.

Business Entity.  The temporary regulations provide that a CPEO must be a “business entity” organized in the United States, but may not be a disregarded entity.  Addressing concerns that PEOs may choose to be disregarded entities for legitimate business reasons, Notice 2016-49 provides that a CPEO may be a wholly domestic disregarded entity.  The Treasury and the IRS sought comments on whether they should allow partly or fully foreign disregarded entity to apply for certification.  Additionally, Notice 2016-49 provides that a sole proprietorship, which is not included in the definition of “business entity,” may apply for certification.

Consent to Disclosure.  Consistent with Section 7705(f), which requires the IRS to publish the names and addresses of all CPEOs, the temporary regulations add that the IRS will also publish the fact of the suspension or revocation of a PEO’s certification and may notify the PEO’s customers of this fact.  Accordingly, the temporary regulations also require an applicant or CPEO to provide the consents for the IRS to disclose confidential tax information to the customers and to other persons as necessary to carry out the purposes of the CPEO rules.

Functional Application of Rule.  The IRS will likely take a functional rather than a mechanical approach to applying the certification rules.  The temporary regulations permit the IRS to suspend or revoke a PEO’s certification if the PEO violates a certification requirement, but require the IRS to do so only if the violation presents a material risk to the IRS’s collection of Federal payroll taxes.  If the IRS suspends or revokes a PEO’s certification, the benefits—e.g., shifting of payroll tax liability and tacking of wages—under Section 3511 will not apply and the PEO must notify its customers of its suspension or revocation.

Employment Tax Treatment of CPEOs and Their Customers

The proposed regulations implement rules under Section 3511 pertaining to the employment tax treatment of CPEOs and their customers.

Work Site Employee.  Section 3511 shifts a customer’s payroll tax liability with respect to wages paid to a “work site employee,” and the proposed regulations apply a quarterly test.  Specifically, a covered employee is a work site employee for a calendar quarter, if at any time during that quarter, at least 85 percent of the service providers at the same work site are subject to one or more CPEO contracts between the CPEO and the customer.

Specified Tax Credits.  The proposed regulations also indicate that the IRS may change its treatment of specified tax credits under Section 3511(d)(1), for which the customer—not the CPEO—is eligible, provided that the wages at issue are paid to a work site employee.  In the preambles to the proposed regulations, the Treasury and the IRS sought comments as to whether they should expand the list of specified tax credits, and how the tax credits should apply with respect to non-work site covered employees.

Continuing Reporting Obligations.  Most significantly, the proposed regulations add three categories of reporting requirements that a CPEO must meet in order to remain certified: (1) reporting to the IRS by CPEOs, including any Form 940 (Employer’s Annual FUTA Tax Return) or Form 941 (Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return) and their applicable schedules, periodic verification of compliance, notice of material changes to information provided, and independent financial review documents, such as the annual audited financial statements along with the CPA opinion; (2) reporting to customers by CPEOs, including notification of suspension or revocation of certification and notification regarding transfer of CPEO contract; and (3) inclusion of certain information in the CPEO contract.

CPEO System of Records

To ensure that an applicant or CPEO complies with the new certification rules, the Treasury and the IRS proposed to establish a records system that covers a myriad of groups of individuals involved in the certification process or administration of the applicant or CPEO.  The proposed records system keeps administrative, investigative, and tax records, which the IRS will only use and disclose consistent with the confidentiality rules under Code Section 6103.  Like the detailed certification rules, the proposed records system signals the IRS’s commitment to enforce the CPEO suitability requirements by weeding out PEOs managed by individuals with a history of tax wrongdoings.  The proposed system became effective on August 10, 2016.

Other Issues

Groundbreaking in the payroll tax world, the CPEO rulemaking project is still in its infancy, and the IRS will continue to issue new rules and clarifications as to a CPEO’s certification and reporting obligations, as well as the new CPEO records system.  Additionally, the IRS will likely address whether to expand the list of specified tax credits applicable to a customer with respect to its work site employees, and how these credits may apply in the case of non-work site covered employees.

One crucial issue the IRS has yet to address is the scope of the liability of CPEOs’ customers.  Although the new rules are intended to shift payroll tax liability to the CPEO, the customer, as the common law employer, may be liable if the IRS retroactively revokes or suspends a CPEO’s certification.  This liability may be significant, as it includes the payroll taxes that should have been but were not properly withheld and/or remitted, and may also include Trust Fund Recovery Penalties.  It is unclear if a customer can avoid this liability when its CPEO failed to withhold or remit payroll taxes properly, solely by showing that it relied on the IRS’s quarterly CPEO list.  Thus, it remains to be seen if the IRS clarifies whether customers must verify their CPEOs’ ongoing compliance with certification requirements.

IRS Certified PEO Program Leaves Unresolved Qualified Plan and ACA Issues

The IRS recently implemented the voluntary certification program for professional employer organizations (PEOs) (discussed in a separate blog post).  Earlier this summer, the IRS released temporary and proposed Treasury regulations and Revenue Procedure 2016-33 pursuant to Code Sections 3511 and 7705, which created a new statutory employer for payroll-tax purposes: an IRS-certified PEO (CPEO).  Last week, the IRS released Notice 2016-49, which relaxed some of the certification requirements set forth in the regulations and Revenue Procedure 2016-33.

Although a significant change in the payroll tax world, the new CPEO program does not clarify the issue of whether a PEO or its customer, the worksite employer, is the common law employer for other purposes.  Thus, even when properly assisted by CPEOs, customers may still be common law employers and must plan for potential liability accordingly.  Two key areas of potential liability are PEO sponsorship of qualified employee benefit plans and the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate.

PEO Sponsorship of Qualified Plans

Before the new CPEO program became available, the PEO industry was already expanding, with customers pushing for PEOs to act as the common law employers for all purposes, not just payroll tax administration.  Customers particularly sought PEOs to sponsor qualified benefit plans for the customers’ workers.  This arrangement, however, clashed with a fundamental rule of qualified plans under ERISA and the Code:  Under the exclusive benefit rule, employers can sponsor qualified plans only for their common law employees and not independent contractors.  Many PEOs set up single employer plans, even though customers – not PEOs – usually had the core characteristics of a common law employer:  Exercising control over the worker’s schedule and manner and means of performing services.

In Revenue Procedures 2002-21 and 2003-86, the IRS reiterated its hardline stance on enforcing the exclusive benefit rule against PEO plans, stating that after 2003, PEOs can no longer rely on any determination letter issued to their single employer plans, even if the letter was issued after 2003.  The guidance provided two forms of transition relief available until 2003: (1) a PEO could terminate the plan, or (2) convert the plan into a multiple employer plan (MEP), which is an employee benefit plan maintained and administered as a single plan in which two or more unrelated employers can participate.  This MEP option, however, still treated customers as the common law employers, who are subject to nondiscrimination, funding, and other qualified-plan rules under ERISA and the Code.

The new CPEO program does not affect the exclusive benefit rule or the determination of common law employer status for qualified plan purposes.  Certified or not, a PEO can sponsor MEPs, but properly sponsoring any single-employer plan rests on the argument that the PEO is the common law employer.  Thus, the law still significantly limits a customer from outsourcing its qualified plan to a PEO.

ACA Employer Mandate & PEO-Sponsored Health Plan

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) imposes on employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent (FTE) employees the “employer mandate,” which, in turn, applies a tax penalty if the employer chooses not to provide health care insurance for its workers.  In general, the common law employer is required to offer coverage to its employees.  Under some circumstances, however, the common law employer can take credit for coverage offered by another entity—such as another company within the same controlled group.

The problem for PEO customers stems from a provision in the final regulations on Section 4980H.  The provision allows the PEO’s customer to take credit for the PEO’s offer of coverage to the customer’s workers only if the customer pays an extra fee:

[I]n cases in which the staffing firm is not the common law employer of the individual and the staffing firm makes an offer of coverage to the employee on behalf of the client employer under a plan established or maintained by the staffing firm, the offer is treated as made by the client employer for purposes of section 4980H only if the fee the client employer would pay to the staffing firm for an employee enrolled in health coverage under the plan is higher than the fee the client employer would pay the staffing firm for the same employee if that employee did not enroll in health coverage under the plan.

The preamble to the regulations doubles down by describing a situation in which the staffing firm is not the common law employer as the “usual case.”

This extra-fee rule puts the PEO’s customer in a difficult position.  If it does not pay the extra fee, then the PEO’s offer of health coverage cannot be credited to the customer.  Thus, the customer risks being subject to the tax penalty, if upon audit the customer is determined to be the common law employer (assuming the PEO’s customer is an applicable large employer).  Alternatively, if the customer pays the extra fee to hedge against the risk of the tax penalty, the payment could be taken as an admission that the customer—not the PEO—is the common law employer.  Being the common law employer could expose the PEO’s customer to a host of legal liabilities, including, for example, rules pertaining to qualified plans (e.g., funding, nondiscrimination), workers compensation, and respondeat superior.  This result is unacceptable for many customers, who take the position that they are not the common law employers for any purpose.  Unfortunately, the new CPEO program only allows the customer to shift its payroll tax liabilities, and does not affect whether the customer or the CPEO is the common law employer for other purposes.

Finally, there is also a reporting wrinkle for customers outsourcing their health coverage obligations to PEOs.  The ACA requires the common law employer to report the offer of coverage on Form 1095-C.  If the PEO’s customer is the common law employer, there is no rule allowing it to shift this reporting obligation to the PEO.  Thus, if the PEO, rather than the customer, files the Form 1095-C, the customer may be subject to reporting penalties for failure to file a return.

U.S. District Court Finds Taxpayer Had Reasonable Basis for Classifying Workers as Independent Contractors

In an area IRS auditors are increasingly scrutinizing, a U.S. district court sided with the taxpayer in its claim for an employment tax refund on the grounds that the taxpayer had a reasonable basis for classifying its workers as independent contractors and thus was not liable for back employment taxes.  In Nelly Home Care, Inc. v. United States, the IRS asserted after an audit of a homecare services company that the company had misclassified its workers as independent contractors and assessed back employment taxes owed as a result of the misclassification.  Refund claims for employment taxes are within the jurisdiction of the U.S. district courts, so the taxpayer paid the taxes and filed a refund action in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The calculation of FICA and federal income tax withholding in reclassification cases is determined under the special rates of Section 3509 of the Internal Revenue Code when an employer incorrectly classifies an employee as an independent contractor but issues a Form 1099-MISC. The court noted that IRS auditors are increasingly relying on this section to scrutinize worker misclassifications.  However, Section 530 of the Revenue Act of 1978, which was never codified, provides a safe harbor for taxpayers that owe back employment taxes due to worker classification errors.  An employer may qualify for the safe harbor by showing that it had a “reasonable basis” to not classify workers as employees, provided the basis arose from reliance on one of four conditions: (i) judicial precedent, published rulings, technical advice with respect to the taxpayer, or a letter ruling to the taxpayer; (ii) a past IRS audit of the taxpayer in which there was no assessment attributable to the treatment of workers in substantially similar positions to the workers at issue; (iii) longstanding recognized practice of a significant segment of the industry in which the worker was engaged; or (iv) any other factors that a court considers sufficient to establish a “reasonable basis.”

The taxpayer in Nelly Home Care argued unsuccessfully that it satisfied the second and third conditions as a basis for its reasonable belief. However, the court found that the record demonstrated that the taxpayer satisfied the fourth condition for demonstrating that it had a reasonable basis and, therefore, was relieved of the employer’s responsibility to withhold income taxes on and apply FICA taxes to the payments.  Specifically, the court considered the inquiries made of other companies’ practices, the personal experience of the taxpayer in the industry, and the IRS’s silence regarding the taxpayer’s classification during its audits of the owner’s personal tax returns.  Notably, the court warned that its decision “in no way endorses” the taxpayer’s classification of its workers as independent contractors.

IRS To Implement Certification Program For Professional Employer Organizations

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May 5, 2016

Today, the IRS released temporary and proposed regulations implementing a new voluntary certification program for professional employer organizations (PEOs).  These regulations set forth the application process and the tax status, background, experience, business location, financial reporting, bonding, and other requirements PEOs must meet to become and remain certified.  The IRS will begin accepting applications for CPEO certification on July 1, 2016, and will release a revenue procedure further detailing the application process in the coming weeks.  We will provide more details on the regulations when we have had the opportunity to review them.

IRS Issues Regulations Relating to Employees of Disregarded Entities

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May 5, 2016

Yesterday, Treasury and the IRS released final and temporary regulations under Section 7701 meant to clarify issues related to the employment of owners of disregarded entities.  In 2009, the IRS issues regulations that required disregarded entities be treated as a corporation for purposes of employment taxes including federal income tax withholding and Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes for Social Security and Medicare.  The regulations provided that a disregarded entity was disregarded, however, for purposes of self-employment taxes and included an example that demonstrated the application of the rule to an individual who was the single owner of a disregarded entity.  In the example, the disregarded entity is treated as the employee of its employees but the owner remains subject to self-employment tax on the disregarded entity’s activities.  In other words, the owner is not treated as an employee.

Rev. Rul. 69-184 provides that partners are not employees of the partnership for purposes of FICA taxes, Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) tax, and federal income tax withholding.  This is true even if the partner would qualify as an employee under the common law test.  This made it difficult—if not impossible—for partnerships to allow employees to participate in the business with equity ownership such as options even if the employee owned only a very small portion of the partnership.  The 2009 regulations raised questions, however, provided some hope that a disregarded entity whose sole owner was a partnership could be used to as the employer of the partnership’s partners. Doing so would have allowed partners in the partnership to be treated as employees of the disregarded entity and participate in tax-favored employee benefit plans, such as cafeteria plans.  The final and temporary regulations clarify that that an individual who owns and portion of a partnership may not be treated as an employee of the partnership or of a disregarded entity owned by the partnership.

As a result, payments made to partners should not be reported on Form W-2, but should be reported on Schedule K-1.  Such payments are not subject to federal income tax withholding or FICA taxes, but will be subject to self-employment taxes when the partner files his or her individual income tax return.  In addition, if partners are currently participating in a disregarded entity’s employee benefit plans, such as a health plan or cafeteria plan, the plan has until the later of August 1, 2016, or the first day of the latest-starting plan year following May 4, 2016.

Tax Court Lacks Jurisdiction to Review IRS Employment Classification Determination

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April 5, 2016

Today, the U.S. Tax Court held that it lacked jurisdiction to review a Form SS-8 determination that a father was an employee, not an independent contractor, of his son. In B G Painting, Inc. v. Commissioner, the son, a painting contractor, issued Forms 1099-MISC to his workers, including the father. The father filed a Form SS-8 (Determination of Worker Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding), requesting that the IRS determine his employment status. In response, the IRS SS-8 Unit notified the parties that the father is the son’s “employee.” The son petitioned the court to review this determination.

The Tax Court held that it lacked statutory jurisdiction to review this determination because the Form SS-8 process is not an “examination.” Section 7436(a) of the Internal Revenue Code grants the Tax Court jurisdiction over employment status if “in connection with an audit of any person, there is an actual controversy involving a determination by the Secretary as part of an examination.” But the Form SS-8 process is not an “audit” or “examination”; rather, it is a voluntary compliance process involving no specific tax liabilities or assessments. Therefore, the Tax Court dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

Once the IRS rules that an individual is an employee on the basis of a Form SS-8 submission, the employer has no right to appeal the determination. The IRS will send a follow-up letter to the employer asking whether the employer has filed Forms 941-x to pay the applicable FICA taxes based on the determination, whether the employer is eligible for Section 530 relief, and whether the employer has reasons for believing the IRS determination is incorrect. Given the obligation to provide health insurance to employees or face a potential tax penalty, the employer should expect an increased number of Form SS-8 submissions by independent contractors and increased focus on worker classification issues by the government.

If the employer fails to treat the individual as an employee following a Form SS-8 determination, the individual may file Form 8919 to report his or her share of FICA taxes. The same form can be used while a Form SS-8 is pending for the individual or if the individual was provided both a Form 1099-MISC and a Form W-2 and believes the income reported on the Form 1099 should have been included on Form W-2.